by Kristin Schneider
Starting this article I wasn’t sure what to expect, as it is not often that I find myself thinking about gender. But after reading Clarence Harlan Orsi’s essay, ‘Take Stock’, and given the chance to hear him speak, I found myself thinking rather deeply on the topic. Through his writing, I was able to get a glimpse into his mind and into the struggles he, and many others like him, have gone through.
In his essay, Orsi talks about how stock photos are used as a way to enforce norms, and how even the most basic of photos are modified by gender. Our society stereotypes gender, places it in categories and identifies certain things as female or male, no matter how ridiculous it may be, until even things a simple as stock photos are gendered.
Gender identity is something people all over the world struggle with. Our society is not always as accommodating or welcoming as we would like it to be, but we are slowly progressing. Finding an author, like Orsi, who is willing to share his story, and who is able to inspire and inform is awe-inspiring. As is his impact on not just those who have, and are struggling as he had, but their friends and loved ones as well.
Orsi’s writing is inspiring, thought-provoking and has a certain way of dragging you in without you even noticing. Getting the chance to hear him read his essay aloud brought an even greater depth to it. It is a great privilege to be able to hear an author read their work, as it brings an intensity to the writing that a reader cannot manage alone. Even sitting there, listening to him read his essay, I found my mind racing. My thoughts and constantly jumping, thinking of my friends who had struggled in similar ways, and, whom could still be struggling even now.
A writer who is able to make a reader think truly has a gift. And during his event, Orsi, made us think even more. Everyone was given a prompt that read, “I was born in the wrong body…” and the range and depth of the answers to it were simply amazing. From one person who believed they should have been born a dragon, a massive, fire-breathing dragon, with scales like fire, to another who wondered what it’d be like to live as molecules, their entire being spread out across the universe, being everywhere and feeling everything at once.
Genders and the form they take may not be the first conscious thought we all have, but the way it is thought of subconsciously and the barriers that surround it has been around forever. Times are changing, but fortunately, we have writers like Clarence Harlan Orsi that remind us to think more in-depth about topics such as this.
I was fortunate enough to have the chance of a small interview with Mr. Orsi, below are his responses to a few of my questions.
What inspires you to write the essays, and stories that you do?
This probably isn’t the right way to be inspired, but a lot of my work begins in annoyance or anger. For this particular essay, I realized I was feeling oppressed by certain expectations present in stock images of gender neutrality. Articulating that feeling helped me realize that it didn’t HAVE to be that way. I made a space for another possibility through writing the essay. My fiction is much more likely to start from a felt image, or from asking the question “what if…” sometimes to ridiculous effect.
In your essay Take Stock you talk about how our society is essentially ‘hardwired to seek categories’ do you believe that we will be stuck seeing gender this way forever?
Part of what I want readers to take from the essay is that categories can be useful and even desirable. A gender category like “man” comes with a couple millennia of expectations, but that doesn’t mean that we should do away with the category. Our history and our assumptions about words will remain either way. And those expectations that come with gender categories give us a place to move from. We can keep them or break them or queer them, whatever. But we need to start somewhere. Instead of feeling sad about our need to categorize the world, we can make that tendency work for us.
You also talk about how stock photos ‘help to enforce the norms.’ Do you think or hope that in the future the norm could include every aspect of gender?
I do hope that the more we progress as a society, the more expansive our notions of gender are. In order to expand our gender norms, we need what Laverne Cox calls “possibility models”: people whose ways of life or bodies or affects open up possibilities for our own lives. If stock photos can make that happen, great!
What do you hope readers will take away from your writing?
I hope to defamiliarize the familiar in some small way. It’s good when people think, and it’s good when they laugh. I can’t always have both, so I tend to view either as a success.
Our society’s views on gender still have a long way to go. But every day it’s changing, and more and more people are learning and becoming aware of the different aspects of gender. And as Orsi’s essay has proven to me, it just takes one simple thing to completely change our thoughts.